the irony of ubiquitous communication and listening

a few weeks ago, thich nhat hanh was on one of my favorite podcasts, on being. he dropped this brilliant thought:

“We live in a time when we have a very sophisticated means for communication, but communication has become very difficult between individuals and groups of people. A father cannot talk to a son, mother cannot talk to a daughter, and Israelis cannot talk to Palestinians, and Hindus cannot talk to Muslims. And that is why we have war, we have violence. That is why restoring communication is the basic work for peace, and our political and our spiritual leaders have to focus their energy on this matter.”

my paraphrase: the irony of today’s ago is that that though communication is now easier and global, we are finding it increasingly difficult to talk across difference.*

unfortunately, it’s all to clear to me why this is the trend and getting worse.

today’s world is increasingly full of designed experiences. for many reasons (obviously including capitalism and greed, but others, too) many of those experiences are designed to drive consumption. this dates way back to the consumerization of american society after the world wars (think mad men days) and probably before that, too.

of course, that’s not to say that your local city planner designed your town’s main street to be a gauntlet of advertisements and product placements. but every window, bus stop wall, vehicle, flyer, and person in a brightly colored vest flagging you down is trying to grab your attention.

and that’s not even including the internet.

and then add on to that the fact almost everyone now carries the world (the internet) in our hands via our smartphones. apps and websites are literally designed to focus your attention on specific information or locations (example: do you know why notifications on all your apps are red?). and often those things are pointers to a purchase.

so, it’s pretty clear to me that the water we swim in conspires, maybe unintentionally, to distract us. this makes it nearly impossible to listen well. the distractions themselves don’t make us not listen (though that happens, t00). they just keep us from being aware that listening is an active practice and a skill that can be developed.

one thing i like to do is every so often is walk down the street on the way to somewhere and just listen. no podcast, no headphones, no calling my mom, just listening the world around me. the individual walks are rarely anything spectacular, but over time, i’ve noticed paterns about different parts of town. there’s some super interesting differences between downtown, newbury street, dudley square, and central square.

agh. i’m over time. real quick, though: given the reality of an increasingly distracted world, i intentionally direct my energy towards a couple activities:

  1. creating environments, spaces, and relationships where real, active listening happens
  2. doing projects and living in ways that connect. this fits into two categories: either connecting people more to themselves or to others

i do this because my understanding of entropy (based on convos with my friend jonathan about shannon entropy and information theory) tells me that the only way to work against strong “natural” forces, is to specifically apply energy in the other direction.

*my thinking about difference has been strongly influenced by ceasar mcdowell and john a. powell.